Gold miners operate in dangerous conditions. They are performing heavy physical work under constant exposure to cold water and a blistering sun. Many miners suffer from skin problems. Most of them don’t use any form of protection except for a hat. Also, because stagnant water attracts mosquitos, malaria is a big problem in small-scale gold mining regions.
As can be imagined, occupational health in the small-scale gold mining sector is no priority to governments that tend to look upon this as an informal, illegal or even criminal activity.
Miners often work in a situation of legal insecurity, with only informal agreements with local communities. Therefore, it is likely that the miners will not make long term investments in the gold fields. The focus is on mining as much gold as possible in a short time. This also has consequences for the treatment of the environment. Safety procedures and measures are neglected by many small-scale miners.
Most problematic is the use of mercury. Mercury vapor is toxic and can cause neurological diseases and other health problems. Between 2002 and 2007, UNIDO started a global project to reduce mercury pollution from small-scale gold mining. There are alternatives to the use of mercury, but they prove hard to be implemented. Several NGOs are active to support small-scale miners in using cleaner techniques and improving the working conditions, such as the Fairmined program initiated by the Alliance for Responsible Mining.
Most of the research on mercury in small-scale gold mining has concentrated on analyses of human contamination, and environmental pollution. GOMIAM maps out the motives and various ways of mercury use by small-scale miners, in order to adequately anticipate the working methods of miners for cleaner mining.
IIED (2013). Scaling up certification in artisanal and small-scale mining. Innovations for inclusivity.
The Amazonia Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG)
Article the Guardian 2013 – How to make small-scale mining sustainable